By Daniel Hunter

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has written to 62 of the top online retailers ahead of the busy Christmas period after a sweep of 156 websites found signs that many may not be fully complying with consumer protection law.

The sweep looked for potential breaches of the Distance Selling Regulations (DSRs) and other consumer protection laws and is part of the OFT's ongoing work to ensure that consumers can shop confidently online.

Key areas of concern that the OFT has raised with retailers include:

- 33 per cent of sites that provided information on cancellation appeared to impose unreasonable restrictions on customers' rights to a refund. Most common was requiring that the product must be in the original packaging or in the original condition, which can infringe on consumers' rights to reasonably inspect/ assess the product.

- 60 per cent provided a web contact form rather than an email contact address, as required by the E-Commerce Regulations. Two per cent provided no electronic contact details at all.

- While 60 per cent of sites indicated upfront that compulsory charges would be added to the first price shown, 24 per cent of these sites went on to add further unexpected charges at the check-out.

However, the sweep also found that the majority of sites were compliant with the DSRs in providing other required information to the consumer. For example, 99 per cent of sites provided details on when the goods would be delivered or the service would start and 95 per cent provided a full geographical address when payment was required in advance.

Traders that do not make amendments to comply with the law risk formal enforcement action from the OFT or Local Trading Standards Services.

To support compliance with the regulations the OFT has created a web-based guidance tool for businesses, the Distance Selling Hub, which includes tips to resolve the key issues identified in the sweep. Top tips include being clear and open about cancellation rights and providing a full refund plus a refund of delivery charges when things go wrong.

The OFT has also produced a short video to help consumers understand their rights when they are shopping online. The video, 'Buying online: know your consumer rights' is available on YouTube.

"The OFT recognises that most businesses want to play fair with their customers and to comply with the law," Cavendish Elithorn, Senior Director of the Goods and Consumer Group at OFT, said.

"We encourage all online retailers to check their websites so customers can be confident their rights are being respected when they shop online. Businesses can find more information on our online Distance Selling Hub."

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